Who Shot Rock & Roll is a must see exhibition of rock photography by photographers who elevated record album cover art from mundane packaging to an art form that captured the spirit of restless post-war youth, redefined pop culture and documented cutting social commentary. Comprising 166 images, the exhibition is a comprehensive and vast exploration of rock photography that in itself serves as a visual history of rock from its emergence in the 1950s at Sun Records through the British Invasion, California folk and psychedelic movements, 70s classic rock, punk and hardcore and hip hop. Who Shot Rock & Roll focuses on the work of a handful of major contributors and the work of lesser-known photographers who happened to be at the right place at the right time capturing equally iconic images that would become inseparable from our collective cultural consciousness.
The vastness of this collection of photos hammers how visual imagery and rock and roll are inseparable, capturing our imaginations, refracting our world view and defining styles and attitude. Detailed exhibit copy tells a story for nearly every photo. How William V. Robinson’s photo of Elvis Presley from his debut had to be cropped above the waist to calm anxious record executives yet still enraged parents nationwide. How Pennie Smith’s photo of the Clash’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the London Calling cover recalled Elvis’ photo on his debut release and reaffirmed rock’s original recipe of energy and rebellion following a decade of bloated arena rock and schmaltzy soft rock. Why Pink Floyd never appeared on album covers. About the misguided, perhaps drug-hazed, attempt at portraying optimism for the future on Blind Faith’s only album by showing a naked pubescent girl holding an abstract silver spaceship that was too phallic for many. How Bob Gruen’s photos of John Lennon at the Statue of Liberty reflected both his immigration battle with the US government and his status as champion of individual freedoms and mutual understanding. How Albert Watson’s freakish double exposure of Mick Jagger’s face melded with the face of a leopard from Rolling Stone’s 1992 25th anniversary issue was a practical compromise after first attempting to photograph Jagger and the leopard driving in a convertible Corvette.
Photographers Henry Diltz (The Doors, The Eagles, CSN&Y, official Woodstock and Monterey Festivals), Guy Webster (Rolling Stones, Mamas and the Pappas, Beach Boys, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel), Linda McCartney (Wings), Ed Colver (Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Christian Death, Social Distortion and hundreds of others), Lynn Goldsmith, Bob Gruen (John Lennon, Led Zepplin, The Who, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Elton John Aerosmith, Kiss, The Dead Boys, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones and Blondie), Mark Seliger (Rolling Stone magazine) and Norman Seeff (Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson) are the focus of an entertaining 30-minute documentary film produced by the Annenberg Foundation and the Brooklyn Museum that interviews these giants of rock photography reflecting on their experiences and craft. The movie is shown on giant 14’ x 7’ screens sporting eye-popping 4K pixel resolution.
This reviewer was delighted that LA’s own Ed Colver was prominently featured. Between 1979 and 1984, this self-taught photographer documented more then 4,000 Southern California punk shows, not only capturing the artists but the desperation and rebellion of youth in the malaise of Reagan America and the faltering promise of Southern California’s endless sprawl and toxic air. Colver’s iconic photo of a stage diver floating upside down over a raucous crowd singularly defines the spirit of Southern California’s punk movement. His photography, more than any of the other artists, is equal parts historical documentation and social commentary. I was thrilled to learn of the story behind the making of the album cover for Black Flag’s seminal release Damaged.
Personal favorites were a photo of Kurt Cobain crying backstage after a gig and four stills from Sonic Youth’s Death Valley ’69 video, which was also shown. Fewer flesh images of Anthony Keidis and Eminem would have been appreciated, however the exhibition would seem remiss without them.
Who Shot Rock is an outstanding entertainment value. Admission is FREE and parking is $1 with validation. You will enjoy this exhibition. You also may end up dropping $120 for autographed coffee-table books of the exhibition catalog and the works of Ed Colver and Bob Gruen, all of which are beautiful. This self-proclaimed, yet clearly lacking know-it-all of rock music learned much from this exhibit. Give yourself at least 90 minutes to explore the exhibition and enjoy the movie. Give yourself an extra 15-20 minutes to navigate the large parking structure and labyrinth of escalators leading to Annenberg’s beautiful exhibition space.
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum
Wed-Fri: 11am – 6pm
Sat: 11am – 9:00pm
Sun: 11am – 6pm
The Annenberg Space for Photography
2000 Avenue of the Stars
Los Angeles, CA 90067